Innovators set pace for a future of hi-tech polls


From left: Solutech Limited business development manager Jinal Savla, co-founder Rayyidh Bayusuf and director Alexander Odhiambo at the firm’s offices on May 10. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG

Jinal Savla, the business development manager at Solutech, was taking part in his community elections when an idea hit him: How much easier it would be if the process was automated? he asked himself.

He had spent the better part of his day queuing before marking the ballot papers. After voting, he would have to wait a couple of days before he and his fellow Visa Oshwal Community members would get the outcome.

Fast forward several months, and Mr Jinal and the Solutech Kenya team convinced the Visa Oshwal Community to digitise their member catalogue and eventually conduct the election electronically.

As part of the digitisation process, each member was issued an NFC (near field communication) smartcard that was used during the voter identification.

“We gave them a test and demo within two months,” said Mr Jinal.

This process meant the Solutech team was not just creating a digital database for the Visa Oshwal Community but was also embedding the data onto the cards which would be used for voter verification and eventually the election itself.

When the polls came, the process was simple: “Previously, it was a whole day affair and this time, from start to finish, it took an average of seven minutes per person to vote,” says Mr Jinal.

The members presented their cards in the voting hall for verification, which was conducted by tapping the card on a NFC-enabled phone or tablet that presented the name and image of the cardholder.

Once this was done, a token would be generated for the cardholder to use for logging in during the voting process.

“Communication between the server and the application on the devices is secure. It is encrypted and we also used cryptography for the voter registration as well as tools to monitor any suspicious activity,” says Mutie Mule, a software engineer at Solutech.

The token generated for voting was only valid for 30 minutes, allowing the cardholder enough time to vote once with the system, barring a user from logging in twice.

“The most challenging part we found was convincing the community to embrace the technology especially to conduct the entire voting process digitally,” says Mr Jinal.

In total, 813 members voted to elect 64 representatives during the process that was conducted between 9am and 1pm, with the results being ready in real time. This was far more efficient compared to the previous process which was a full day of voting followed by a day or two of tallying of the physical votes.

The system allowed voters to use their mobile phones or the tablets and laptops provided to log in with the token and vote.

The Solutech team started small, with a vision to make an impact with technology locally. As young graduates, the co-founders sought jobs as they ran individual briefcase IT firms to make an extra shilling. Three of them operated in an office across Mr Jinal’s, and had worked with him before. With Mr Jinal’s experience spanning nearly two decades in business and the technical knowhow of the entire team, it was natural for them to start a venture together.

“We started the business together because there is comfort in working with people you trust,” says Alexander Odhiambo, co-founder and software engineer at Solutech.

At they leveraged on the backgrounds and competencies of the co-founders, the team also brought on board additional team members including eight developers, two accountants and one designer.

The voter verification and election tool is the latest product in their stable. They also have a sales management tool that helps companies keep track of orders, billing, shipping and delivery of their products digitally.

“We have Kenafric, Menengai, Flame Tree, Bakersland, Safari Staioners and Mosara as some of our clients,” says Mr Jinal.

As its list of clients grows, the firm has had its fair share of challenges. While the Kenyan technology landscape has been lauded globally and even attracted tech giants, the local market is still ponderous in the uptake of local innovations.

Also, according to Mr Mutie, hiring the correct talent determines the growth of the company, yet, good talent is expensive. That, coupled with the scepticism in hiring Kenyan firms to build systems and softwares has served as a hurdle for startups and small tech firms locally.

“You will find someone willing to pay a Silicon Valley-based firm much more than a Kenyan firm regardless of the quality,” says Mr Odhiambo, adding that technology has become global and simple but costing remains a hurdle.

Experts say the number of man hours invested as well as the amount of expertise and experience are costly, but the market is yet to fully appreciate that.